On February 9th, The Beaver posted a news piece about a student who alleged that a member of LSE security stopped her from praying. In my opinion, certain responses to this incident would be disproportionate, unfair, and unjustified. Before I continue with my reasoning, I’ll tell you my background as this may be meaningful for some readers.
I’m a non-British, Muslim, female student at the LSE. I was raised in a Muslim household, and I’m still a practicing Muslim. I’m aware that the view I hold is against the tide of popular opinion. Though you may disagree with my views, I hope that this information suffices to show that my views are far from Islamophobic.
The response to this incident has consisted of labelling the allegedly Islamophobic act as conclusively Islamophobic. It may be suggested a ‘favourable’ outcome would be getting an apology from the member of the security staff and of getting her sacked. With the apology as an exception, the response is disproportionately harsh as firstly the actions of the security personnel, who’ll be referred to as Eva, have been decisively labelled as Islamophobic, even before the investigation has been concluded, and, secondly, even if the act had been Islamophobic, punishing her by taking away her job is not warranted.
First, the label “Islamophobic” has been unjustifiably branded on Eva’s actions, as such an intent behind her actions is merely alleged and has not been proven. Islamophobic acts are committed out of fear, anxiety, or hostility towards another because of their perceived or actual Muslim identity. While this could be assumed because of the evidence so far, it is not confirmed. A heavy label such as “Islamophobic”, with the social stigma and disapprobation it carries, requires heavy justification and clear evidence. From a point of justice, whether a secular or religious view, this should be clear to anyone.
While the possibility that Eva’s actions were Islamophobic in nature, stating that her act was in fact Islamophobic is turning an assumption into an unquestionable fact based on one-sided evidence. Though the evidence so far, i.e. the video recording and the student’s account, may strongly suggest that the act was Islamophobic, this does not justify pinning the label of Islamophobic on her actions. A fundamental right is the right to defend oneself against such labels, whether the label’s “Islamophobic” or “criminal”. Hence, the one-sided evidence thus far does not justify conclusively marking Eva’s acts as being motivated by Islamophobic sentiment.
To clarify, my intentions are neither to delegitimise nor to demean the student’s feelings and perspective. If I had been in her shoes, I’d be considerably distressed and shaken up, too. Rather, my intention is to stress that, no matter how understandable our anger may be, this does not legitimise assumptions being cemented as fact based on our emotion and/or a lack of balanced evidence. Though we may feel that something is true, it doesn’t mean that it is actually true.
As the presumption at the moment is that Eva’s acts were in fact Islamophobic, I’ll present accounts from two other members of the LSE security staff, Natasha and Mohamed (whose names have also been changed), who I had talked to after the incident occurred, to challenge this presumption.
Presuming that Eva’s acts were Islamophobic appears to be vastly out of line with her character as described by her colleague, Mohamed. Based on Mohamed’s account, from working with Eva for over 6 years in the LSE, he had had no reason to think of her as being Islamophobic. As well as being admirably strict (i.e. telling off anyone who tried to enter the NAB without a LSE pass, even if the person held a respectable position in the university), she’s been kind and helpful to Mohamed. When he was coping with the loss of a family member, she had comforted him and, knowing that he was a Muslim, she had encouraged him to pray to God.
Moreover, at the present moment, there does not seem to be a hard and fast rule on whether students can pray in the area outside of the Hong Kong Theatre. Hence, the issue of whether Eva was in the right or wrong is more grey than it is black and white as a member of the security staff’s response is largely discretionary in this issue. After asking Natasha what she would have done if she had been in Eva’s place, she said that she would have done the same as Eva and told the student not to pray in that area. Her justification was that public prayer may invite unwanted attention, and lead to conflict. Undoubtedly, this is open to criticism: 1) prayer shouldn’t be anyone else’s issue if it doesn’t harm them or cause a legitimate safety concern, and 2) rather than placing the wrongness on the act of public prayer itself, it’s placed on the prospect of an aggressive reaction. Contrarily, when I asked Mohamed, he said that he would only have interfered if the student had posed a safety hazard to other students.
At the very least, I hope this shows that at first sight there is no correct response to this situation, given the ostensible lack of clear rules. If indeed Eva had made the wrong call, I hope these accounts show that this had not been based on a conclusive Islamophobic intent. It may have been, despite the account given by Mohamed, but this has to be proved, rather than unjustifiably presumed.
Following the assumption that Eva’s acts were in fact Islamophobic, even in light of the accounts above, a “favourable” outcome of the school taking action should not consist of her losing her job, her livelihood. This is based on the following reasons: the response doesn’t have to be vengeful and harsh, even if someone had committed a wrong, and harsher punishments do not necessarily equate to more effective prevention of the wrong being committed in the future.
Even though someone has committed a wrong, this does not necessitate harsh punishment. From a point of empathy, though Eva had, perhaps insensitively, interfered with the student’s freedom to pray, it does not seem fair that a nearly 60-year-old, black, female security guard, who is almost certainly in the lower income bracket, and who may or may not be supporting any children, should lose her livelihood. Given her socio-economic position, and the intersecting discrimination that she’s likely to be subject to, it is difficult to imagine the future consequences that she’d have to suffer because of a “favourable” outcome. From an Islamic perspective, I’d like to highlight that the name Islam itself means peace. Islam professes peaceful resolution of conflicts where possible, rather than immediately escalating the situation. The response so far has arguably been more adversarial and aggressive than peaceful.
Even with the varying backgrounds we students have come from, the opportunities of a nearly 60-year-old black woman with presumably low income, and with a lasting mark of “Islamophobic” attached to her record, are not the same as the opportunities we face as LSE students.
Regarding the effectiveness of severe punishment, from disciplining children with physical harm, to death penalties in some jurisdictions, there is no conclusive evidence to prove a correlation between harsh punishment, and the prevention of wrongful behaviour and actions. In response to an argument based on preventing Eva, or anyone in LSE, from subjecting another to Islamophobic remarks, punitive measures, i.e. taking away her job, are not necessarily effective in achieving this aim. Rather, the degree of effectiveness is doubtful. While a less punitive disciplinary measure may be proportionate (i.e. suspending her, or letting her off with a warning), the extremity of sacking her is arguably disproportionate.
As mentioned earlier, Islam is a religion of peace, and forgiveness. A fair and just resolution does not require a vengeful and harsh response. Being fair and just can be accompanied by mercy and compassion. A sense of community and care could guide the response to one’s mistake or wrongful behaviour, instead of immediately isolating, vilifying, and defaming the individual. Especially when there’s a lack of sufficient, balanced evidence.
I hope the comments stating that Eva’s actions were Islamophobic would be retracted and corrected, as omitting “allegedly” presumes that her actions had been Islamophobic, even in the absence of balanced evidence and possibly against accounts of her character. I hope any prevalent wave pushing the LSE management team to take appropriate action, and for a “favourable” outcome, does not skew the investigation against her. Lastly, I sincerely hope that this incident will be approached in a calm, peaceful, and compassionate manner by both sides.
To end this article, I’d like to share two quotes from the book whose title this article shares:
“Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
“It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, [and] abuse of power”
 For a summary of the incident, see The Beaver’s article “LSE Security Staff Stops Student Prayer”
 All names in this article have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy
 Bryan Stevenson’s book, ‘Just Mercy’. The book details Stevenson’s experience as a young lawyer in Alabama’s death penalty system. Regardless of whether the conviction had been dubious or certain, he proposes for an abolition of the death penalty. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – he advocates for a more merciful and empathetic approach to those who have committed crimes, putting hope in the chance of them redeeming themselves rather than marginalizing and condemning them to severe punishment.